The arrival of 20-year-old Whitecaps PDL midfielder Ben Fisk this week from Vancouver is the sort of lower-case headline that makes Battery fans sit up and take notice. Because what does it mean? We’re not yet two months past the announcement of the MLS/USL PRO affiliation/Reserve agreement, the details of which remain largely unexplored, and the only thing everyone agrees on so far is that the deal is going to be significant.
Which means I’m not only one reading the tea leaves on player movements like this one.
Officially, Fisk is a trialist. I understand, without official confirmation, that if Fisk plays here it would be as a loan from the Whitecaps, but there’s much more I don’t know. If Coach Mike Anhaeuser evaluates him and thinks he’s not likely to get significant minutes in the regular season, would Vancouver want him back? Who pays his salary, Charleston or the Whitecaps? If the Whitecaps are paying for him to play in USL PRO, wouldn’t they expect some input into his development? And should we expect to see more players from British Columbia headed our way this season? (Answer just in: Whitecaps set for loan deals to Charleston Battery).
Maybe most significantly, do signs of informal cooperation between Charleston and Vancouver signify the first stirrings of a future affiliation deal?
So let me begin by saying that I don’t believe that it does. At least it doesn’t have to mean that. I’m taking the advice that says “don’t read too much into it.”
But here’s what I know on the record: When I spoke to Battery President Andrew Bell in February about the league’s Jan. 23 MLS deal, he made it clear that while the Battery had not yet signed an affiliation partnership for 2013, affiliation was definitely in the club’s future, and he was excited about it. At last week’s season-ticket-holders-meet-and-greet, Bell confirmed that the club doesn’t “have an official (my italics added) affiliation yet, but we are working actively towards it.” And there are significant reasons to expect that the Battery’s front office is not only currently fielding offers from MLS franchises, but probably the best available USL PRO partner remaining on the board.
So there are really two questions to ponder right now:
1. Which MLS franchises would be the most likely to pursue Charleston?
2. Which MLS franchises would have the most to offer Charleston?
So let’s ponder.
THE NUMBERS GAME: The first thing to understand is that Battery’s position in this game is similar to that of an attractive, unmarried woman with the deed to her own home in Fairbanks, Alaska. It’s a seller’s market.
Start with Major League Soccer. Eighteen of the 19 MLS franchises (hola, Chivas USA!) have opted to participate in either affiliation or reserve league play with USL PRO in 2013. So far only four clubs of those 18 clubs have announced affiliation deals: D.C. United is going steady with the Richmond Kickers, Sporting Kansas City hooked up with MLS-wannabes Orlando City Lions, the New England Revolution got the Rochester Rhinos to say yes, and the Philadelphia Union and the Harrisburg City Islanders were already a common-law couple.
Now count USL PRO. The league has 13 members in 2013, and four of them are already taken.
Of the remaining nine, two of them are special cases. Antigua Barracuda is essentially the government-sponsored club version of Antigua and Barbuda’s overachieving CONCACAF national team. They’ve got no interest in accepting MLS players on loan. And the Charlotte Eagles are a combination professional soccer club and Christian mission. Probably not the easiest partnership for most MLS franchises.
Take all those clubs off the board, and you’re left with seven USL PRO teams for 14 MLS clubs in 2013. Basically, it’s your middle-school-dance nightmare scenario for the top-tier franchises.
GEOGRAPHY: With the exception of the Kansas City/Orlando deal, the other three affiliations are clearly based at least in part on proximity, and a USL official in January made the point that it was unlikely that we’d see a team from the Pacific Northwest affiliating with a club from the Southeast.
But that early conventional wisdom seems to be evolving. Since the announcement in January, USL people have begun noting that the distance involved isn’t as big of a factor so long as the loan deals are season long. This hasn’t always been the case. For instance, when Portland Timbers sent forward Bright Dike on loan to the LA Blues last season, it was only for a couple of months. After finding his mojo in USL PRO last spring, Dike returned to Portland in late summer, took the starting job from the team’s highest-paid Designated Player, and scored five goals down the stretch. Not an awful deal for the Blues, just a much better outcome for the Timbers. Thanks for fixing our guy! Wel’ll take him back now!
But given that the inter-league agreement calls for affiliations to provide at least four season-long loans to the lower-league club, even a certain amount of travel expense becomes relatively insignificant.
So yes, geography matters. Closer is better. Shop local. All that. But it’s no longer the whole story.
And it can’t be. With only two USL PRO teams west of the Mississippi this year (the league will expand into Sacramento next season), the Western Conference has no choice but to look east.
WHAT’S IN IT FOR MLS: While a few teams (yes, I’m talking about you, Red Bulls and Galaxy) put an emphasis on signing fading international players for U.S. farewell tours, all the MLS franchises basically live and die on developing talent. In the past most of that talent came through the league’s various drafts, but with the rise of youth academies and the confusing “homegrown player” rule, more of that talent is now being cultivated in-house.
The thing is, there’s a mighty leap between the PDL experience and MLS, particularly for players who might have skipped college or left early. An MLS team that’s invested in a young talent like Omar Salgado certainly would like to see that player getting lots of competitive minutes, but the Reserve schedule isn’t going to provide that, and the PDL route is a poor alternative.
USL PRO, on the other hand, offers talented young players a chance to develop into stars against talent that often rivals what you see in the top tier. So if you’re an MLS front office, the main thing you’re probably looking for is a professional, stable, successful partner with a proven track record. And Charleston is generally considered the best-run small club in American soccer.
WHAT’S IN IT FOR CHARLESTON: The most obvious answer is the most important one, too: Talented players that someone else is paying. Right now the Battery have about 20 to 21 guys at their practices and home games. Getting four highly rated contributors for next to nothing would be a huge contribution to not only the club’s success, but also its financial viability. Anything beyond that is gravy.
But if you’re Charleston, what else might you be considering as you evaluate suitors?
Relationship with the other club: You don’t want to work with people who annoy you. No one does. The better their history of cooperation, the more likely they are to trust each other.
Professionalism, stability and outlook: Not all MLS clubs are created equal. Do you really want to partner with a franchise that reshuffles its deck every two years? Or that has a history of picking overrated, under-performing players?
Carolina Challenge Cup: Certainly this isn’t a make-or-break factor, but wouldn’t it be nice for mutual evaluation and general goodwill if your MLS partner could come down for your preseason tournament most years?
Destination for players: No matter how good the money looks, do you really want to partner with a team that makes players cringe? Because the more closely the clubs work together, the more likely it is that the MLS squad will be the buyer of choice for the players you develop. A bad MLS partner could hurt negotiations with players in the free-for-all that is the USL PRO preseason.
EVALUATING THE OPTIONS: With all that in mind, let’s look at the remaining MLS options:
Montreal Impact: They’re off to a great start after a solid expansion season, but it’s not clear to me that their style of play, location and language would make l’Impact a popular destination for Charleston players. Grade: C
Columbus Crew: Ohio and Charleston aren’t that far apart, and if you doubt that, go walk in the Market. This is a stable, if boring, franchise, but the other factor here is that one of the most obvious geographical affiliations left out there is Columbus and Dayton. Grade: C-
Houston Dynamo: Houston attended the 2013 CCC, and they’re respected, stable, smart and storied. Most players would probably love to get a call from a Dominic Kinnear team that’s been to the MLS Championship game two years in a row. Grade: B+
Toronto FC: The continuing saga of TFC’s failure to launch is an MLS mystery. The players love the facilities, the atmosphere and the way the club treats its talent, but those good feelings haven’t translated into wins and organizational stability. But the Battery are working out a deal with the Toronto front office now, and that could be worth something. Plus Toronto would be a natural for the CCC. Grade: B-
New York Red Bulls: On the one hand, this is a team with a quality homegrown program. They play in a place where everyone hopes to headline someday. And the only reason that Nicki Paterson isn’t already wearing their kit is supposedly his lack of a Green Card. It’s also an easy flight. On the other, the place has been a mess for several years now, it’s in transition again this year, and Red Bulls soccer still seems to be more about signing big-name Europeans than about developing young talent like Conor Lade, who kicked off an impressive late run in 2012 with a screamer goal at Blackbaud Stadium during the U.S. Open Cup. Grade: B+
Chicago Fire: This is a long-term, successful MLS franchise that isn’t going away. Chicago is a desirable destination. The talent level is generally good, although I’m not aware of the club having a tradition of developing homegrown talent. It’s another natural for the CCC, and it’s one of the easiest and cheapest places to get to by plane from Charleston. Grade: B+
FC Dallas: I’m not aware of any relationship between the Battery FO and the staff in Dallas, and I don’t think of it as a preferred MLS player destination. Let’s call it a C.
Vancouver Whitecaps: Another former lower-tier franchise (it joined MLS in 2011), the Whitecaps and the Battery are known to each other. The club was here for CCC 2013, and things seem to be progressing in the relationship. A Vancouver affiliation would mean access to an active Canadian academy program, and Canadians don’t count as foreign players in our league. It would also be a pipeline to Cascadia, which is the epicenter of North American soccer. Grade: A-
LA Galaxy: The Galaxy have a USL PRO franchise just across town, which might be an important part of their planning. Plus the Galaxy seem to do a good job of moving Southern California players up to the senior squad (Jose Villareal, Jack McBean). So sure, they’d be a sexy Hollywood partner, but something about it feels about as likely as cars and trucks transforming into gigantic robots and fighting with other robots from another planet. Sorry, wrong movie. Grade: C-
Real Salt Lake: Great fans, great mountain biking, a history of success. Now, the downside: It’s not a city most 22-year-old athletes put on their “places I’d like to live” list. It’s always been in MLS, so there’s no lower-league familiarity. Grade: C-
San Jose Earthquakes: There are staff connections between the clubs, but it’s pretty easy to see them waiting a year and signing a deal with the USL PRO expansion Sacramento franchise. Grade: C
Portland Timbers: Yes, the staffs know each other thanks to years spent in the same leagues. They’ve got a quality youth program that helped develop Jarad van Schaik. And yes, the intense atmosphere at Jeld-Wen is something lots of players crave. Just ask Taylor Mueller, who almost made the roster after being drafted in the supplemental draft in 2011. But the Timbers put on their own preseason soccer tournament, so the CCC is right out, they sent two players on loan to LA Blues last year, and despite a promising start under Caleb Porter, they haven’t exactly impressed the world with their personnel decisions. Plus, Charleston has been flirting with Seattle ever since it moved up, and now the Battery is apparently dating Vancouver. I’m RCTID, and my heart wants my MLS team and my USL PRO team to fall in love and live happily ever after. But they’re just not that into each other. Grade: C-
Colorado Rapids: Hard to believe this team won MLS just a few years ago. It’s kind of stuck in limbo right now with injuries and I’m not sure where it’s headed. No know history between the clubs. Great place to live and play. No reason why they couldn’t come to the CCC most years — at least that I know of. Grade: C
Seattle Sounders: There are three former Battery players in the Sounders 18 most games this year. Their youth program just produced a future star in homegrown player DeAndre Yedlin. The coaching staffs have a relationship. The front offices have relationships. Seattle is a desireable city, it’s smack-dab in the middle of the Cascadia soccer hot-zone, and homegame attendance is the highest in the league. It’s a long flight, but Seattle will never go to Portland’s preseason tournament. And damn them, they just keep winning. Finally, because it would really piss me off if this wound up being the Battery’s choice, that almost clinches the deal. How could it be anyone else: Grade: A
Chivas USA: They’ve already said they don’t want to play the affiliation dating game, because they’re married to the club in Guadalajara, but who knows? They could change their mind. And even then it wouldn’t matter. Grade: F
Photo: That’s Bryce Alderson of the Vancouver Whitecaps, soon to be headed to Charleston on loan, according to The Province newspaper in Vancouver.